Skip to main content
Log in

Potential impacts from tephra fall to electric power systems: a review and mitigation strategies

  • Review Article
  • Published:
Bulletin of Volcanology Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Modern society is highly dependent on a reliable electricity supply. During explosive volcanic eruptions, tephra contamination of power networks (systems) can compromise the reliability of supply. Outages can have significant cascading impacts for other critical infrastructure sectors and for society as a whole. This paper summarises known impacts to power systems following tephra falls since 1980. The main impacts are (1) supply outages from insulator flashover caused by tephra contamination, (2) disruption of generation facilities, (3) controlled outages during tephra cleaning, (4) abrasion and corrosion of exposed equipment and (5) line (conductor) breakage due to tephra loading. Of these impacts, insulator flashover is the most common disruption. The review highlights multiple instances of electric power systems exhibiting tolerance to tephra falls, suggesting that failure thresholds exist and should be identified to avoid future unplanned interruptions. To address this need, we have produced a fragility function that quantifies the likelihood of insulator flashover at different thicknesses of tephra. Finally, based on our review of case studies, potential mitigation strategies are summarised. Specifically, avoiding tephra-induced insulator flashover by cleaning key facilities such as generation sites and transmission and distribution substations is of critical importance in maintaining the integrity of an electric power system.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Akkar S, Sucuoğlu H, Yakuta A (2005) Displacement-based fragility functions for low and mid-rise ordinary concrete buildings. Earthquake Spectra 21(4):901–927

    Google Scholar 

  • Al-Hamoudi IY (1995) Performance of HV insulators under heavy natural pollution conditions. Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Transmission and Distribution Construction and Live Line Maintenance ESMO-95, 29 Oct–3 Nov, pp 25–31

  • Australian/New Zealand Standards (AS/NZS) ISO 31000 (2009) Risk management—principles and guidelines. Jt Australian New Zealand Standard, superseding AS/NZS 4360: 2004, 37 p

  • Baxter PJ (1990) Medical effects of volcanic eruptions. I. Main causes of death and injury. Bull Volcanol 52:532–544

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Baxter P, Boyle R, Cole P, Neri A, Spence R, Zuccaro G (2005) The impacts of pyroclastic surges on buildings at the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat. Bull Volcanol 67:292–313

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bebbington M, Cronin S, Chapman I, Turner M (2008) Quantifying volcanic ash fall hazard to electricity infrastructure. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 177:1055–1062

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Berizzi A, Merlo M, Zeng Y, Marannino P, Scarpellini P (2000) Determination of the N-1 security maximum transfer capability through power corridors. Proceedings of the Power Engineering Society Winter Meeting, 23–27 Jan. IEEE 3:1739–1744

    Google Scholar 

  • Billinton R, Allan R (1988) Reliability assessment of large electric power systems. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Blong RJ (1984) Volcanic hazards: a sourcebook on the effects of eruptions. Academic, Australia

    Google Scholar 

  • Blong R (2003) Building damage in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, 1994. Bull Volcanol 65:43–54

    Google Scholar 

  • Blong R, McKee C (1995) The Rabaul eruption 1994: Destruction of a town. Natural Hazards Research Centre, Macquarie University, Australia 52 p

  • Bonadonna C, Phillips JC, Houghton BF (2005) Modeling tephra sedimentation from a Ruapehu weak plume eruption. J Geophys Res 110(B8) B08209, AGU. doi:10.1029/2004JB003515

  • Buck CR, Connelly JW (1980) Effects of volcanic ash on resistivity of standard specification substation crushed rock surfacing under simulated rainfall. Bonneville Power Administration, Laboratory Report ERJ-80-50, 20 p

  • Cakebread RJ, Brown HJ, Dawkins RB (1978) Automatic insulator-washing system to prevent flashover due to pollution. Proc Inst Electr Eng 125(12):1363–1366

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carlson, L. (1998) Planning the restoration of Rabaul: Risk, compromise and mitigation. Proceedings of the IEPNG Conference ‘98, Engineering in Natural Disasters: Survival, Relief and Restoration, 25-27 Sep, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, pp 49–58

  • Connor C, Hill B, Winfrey B, Franklin N, Femina P (2001) Estimation of volcanic hazards from tephra fallout. Nat Hazards Rev 2(1):33–42

    Google Scholar 

  • Cronin SJ, Neall VE, Lecointre JA, Hedley MJ, Loganathan P (2003) Environmental hazards of fluoride in volcanic ash: a case study from Ruapehu volcano, New Zealand. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 121:271–291

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) (2002) Guide to corona and arcing inspection of overhead transmission lines, EPRI Rep 1001910, 2002

  • Ely CHA, Lambeth PJ, Looms JST (1978) The booster shed: prevention of flashover of polluted substation insulators in heavy wetting. IEEE Trans Power Appar Syst PAS-97(6):2187–2197

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Farzaneh N, Chisholm W (2009) Insulators for icing and polluted environments. Wiley-IEEE Press, Picataway

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Filho OO, Cardoso JA, de Mello DR, de Azevedo RM, Carvalho SG (2010) The use of booster sheds to improve the performance of 800kV multicone type insulators under heavy rain. Proceedings of the 2010 International Conference on High Voltage Engineering and Application (ICHVE), 11–14 Oct, pp 485–488

  • Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) (2011) Volcano risk study: Volcano hazard and exposure in GFDRR priority countries and risk mitigation measures. NGI Report 20100806, 3 May 2011

  • Gutman I, Djurdjevic I, Eliasson AJ, Söderström P, Wallin L. (2011) Influence of air-borne ashes on outdoor insulation. Proceedings of the SC B2 Conference, Reykjavic, Iceland, 6 p

  • Hall ML, Robin C, Beate B, Mothes P, Monzier M (1999) Tungurahua Volcano, Ecuador: structure, eruptive history and hazards. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 91:1–21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hansell AL, Horwell CJ, Oppenheimer C (2006) The health hazards of volcanoes and geothermal areas. Occup Env Med 63(2):149–156

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Horwell CJ, Baxter PJ (2006) The respiratory health hazards of volcanic ash: a review for volcanic risk mitigation. Bull Volcanol 69:1–24

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standard 80 (2000) IEEE guide for safety in AC substation grounding, IEEE Std 80-2000, New York, 200 p

  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standard 957 (2005) IEEE guide for cleaning insulators. IEEE Std 957-2005, New York, 77 p

  • SMEC International (1999) Rebuilding Rabaul. Paper prepared for the 1999 Engineering Excellence Awards. SMEC International Pty. Ltd

  • International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Standard 60815 (2008) Selection and dimensioning of high voltage insulators intended for use in polluted conditions, IEC/TS 60815, 108 p

  • Johnston DM (1997a) The impacts of recent falls of volcanic ash on public utilities in two communities in the United States of America. Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences science report 97/5, 21 p

  • Johnston DM (1997b) Physical and social impacts of past and future volcanic eruptions in New Zealand. Unpublished PhD thesis, Massey University, New Zealand

  • Johnston DM, Houghton BF, Neall VE, Ronan KR, Paton D (2000) Impacts of the 1945 and 1995–1996 Ruapehu eruptions, New Zealand: an example of increasing societal vulnerability. GSA Bull 112(5):720–726

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Karady G (2007) Concept of energy transmission and distribution. In: Grigsby L (ed) Electric power generation, transmission and distribution. Taylor & Francis, Boca Raton, Ch 8

  • Kim SH, Cherney EA, Hackam R (1990) The loss and recovery of hydrophobicity of RTV silicone rubber insulator coatings. IEEE Trans Power Deliv 5(3):1491–1500

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lannes W, Schneider H (1997) Pollution severity performance chart; key to just-in-time insulator maintenance. IEEE Trans Power Deliv 12(4):1493–1500

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lawrence RF (1988) The relation of electricity to society. Summary of an address on behalf of The Electrical Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IEEE Centennial Meeting. IEEE Power Engineering Review, Aug 1988

  • Mee M, Bodger P, Wardman J (2012) Volcanic ash contamination of high voltage insulators: revising insulator design to aid the electrostatic repulsion of volcanic ash. Proceedings of the Electricity Engineers Association Conference and Exhibition, 20-22 June 2012, Auckland, New Zealand

  • Meredith I (2007) Sharing experiences with applying coating to turbines. Hydro Rev Worldw 15(3):34,36–38,40–41

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller TP, Chouet BA (eds) (1994) The 1989–1990 eruptions of Redoubt Volcano, Alaska. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 62:530

  • Nellis CA, Hendrix KW (1980) Progress report on the investigation of volcanic ash fallout from Mount St. Helens. Bonneville Power Administration, Laboratory Report ERJ-80-47, 44 p

  • Porter K, Kennedy R, Bachman R (2007) Creating fragility functions for performance based earthquake engineering. Earthq Spectra 23:471–489

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Richards CN, Renowden JD (1997) Development of a remote insulator contamination monitoring system. IEEE Trans Power Deliv 12(1):389–397

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rinaldi SM, Peerenboom JP, Kelly TK (2001) Identifying, understanding and analysing critical infrastructure independencies. IEEE Control Syst Mag 21:11–25

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rogers, E.J. (1982) Volcanic ash modified safety characteristics of the Schrag substation grounding grid. Bonneville Power Administration Laboratory Report ERJ-82-12, 12 p

  • Rose WI, Durant AJ (2009) Fine ash content of explosive eruptions. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 186(1–2):32–39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rossetto T, Elnashai A (2003) Derivation of vulnerability functions for European-type RC structures based on observational data. Eng Struct 25:1241–1263

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sarkinen CF, Wiitala JT (1981) Investigation of volcanic ash in transmission facilities in the Pacific Northwest. IEEE Trans Power Appar Syst PAS-100:2278–2286

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Siebert L, Simkin T (2002) Volcanoes of the world: an illustrated catalog of Holocene volcanoes and their eruptions. Smithsonian Institution, Global Volcanism Program Digital Information Series, GVP-3. Accessed 12 Dec 2011

  • Spence RJ, Kelman I, Baxter PJ, Zuccaro G, Petrazzuoli S (2005) Residential building and occupant vulnerability to tephra fall. Nat Hazards Earth Syst Sciences 5:477–494

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sundararajan R, Gorur RS (1996) Role of non-soluble contaminants on the flashover voltage of porcelain insulators. IEEE Trans Dielectrics Electrical Insulation 3(1):113–118. doi:10.1109/94.485522

    Google Scholar 

  • Sword-Daniels, VL (2010) The impacts of volcanic ash fall on critical infrastructure systems. Unpublished Masters thesis, Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomagnetic Engineering, University College London, UK, 104 p

  • Sword-Daniels V, Wardman J, Stewart C, Wilson T, Johnston D, Rossetto T (2011) Infrastructure impacts, management and adaptations to eruptions at Volcán Tungurahua, Ecuador, 1999-2010. GNS Science Report 2011/24, 76 p

  • Transpower (1995) Report on volcanic ash contamination. Unpublished internal report, 15 p

  • Wardman J, Sword-Daniels V, Stewart C, Wilson T (2012a) Impact assessment of the May 2010 eruption of Pacaya volcano, Guatemala. GNS Science Report 2012/09, 99 p

  • Wardman J, Wilson T, Bodger P, Cole J, Johnston D (2012b) Investigating the electrical conductivity of volcanic ash and its effect on HV power systems. Phys Chem Earth. doi:10.1016/j.pce.2011.09.003

  • Wightman A, Bodger P, (2011) Volcanic Ash Contamination of High Voltage Insulators. Proceedings from the Electrical Engineers Association Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, 23-24 June, 2011, 17 p

  • Wilson T, Daly M, Johnston D (2009) Review of impacts of volcanic ash on electricity distribution systems, broadcasting and communication networks. Auckland Engineering Lifelines Group (AELG) Technical Report No.051, 79 p

  • Wilson TM, Cole JW, Stewart C, Cronin SJ, Johnston DM (2011) Ash storm: impacts of wind remobilised volcanic ash on rural communities and agriculture following the 1991 Hudson eruption, southern Patagonia, Chile. Bull Volcanol 73(3):223–239

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wilson T, Stewart C, Sword-Daniels V, Leonard G, Johnston D, Cole J, Wardman J, Wilson G, Barnard S (2012) Volcanic ash impacts on critical infrastructure. Phys Chem Earth. doi:10.1016/j.pce.2011.06.006

  • Wu D, Astrom U, Almgren B, Soderholm S (1998) Investigation into alternative solutions for HVDC station post insulators. Proceedings of the 1998 International Conference on Power System Technology, POWERCON '98, 1:512-515

  • Wu G, Cao H, Xu X, Xiao H, Li S, Xu O, Liu B, Wang O, Wang Z, Ma Y (2009) Design and application of inspection system in a self-governing mobile robot system for high voltage transmission line inspection. Proceedings of the 2009 Power and Energy Engineering Conference, APPEEC 2009, Asia-Pacific, pp 1–4

  • Yasuda M, Fujimura T (1976) A study and development of high water pressure hot-line insulator washing equipment for 500kV substation. IEEE Trans Power Appar Syst PAS-95(6):1919–1932

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors wish to thank Transpower New Zealand, Ltd. (Wardman, Wilson), Ministry of Science and Innovation Grant C05X0804 (Wilson, Cole), and the Earthquake Commission for funding support. We thank Victoria Sword-Daniels for review of an early draft of the paper. We thank Grant Heiken, Kim Genareau and Bill Rose for their insightful and supportive reviews of this manuscript and Steve Self as editor. Finally, thank you to the power system operators and personnel who gave up their time to provide invaluable information for this study.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. B. Wardman.

Additional information

Editorial responsibility: S. Self

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.


(DOCX 118 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Wardman, J.B., Wilson, T.M., Bodger, P.S. et al. Potential impacts from tephra fall to electric power systems: a review and mitigation strategies. Bull Volcanol 74, 2221–2241 (2012).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: